Then there's the time I resurrected a seven-hundred-pound black bear in up in Tomah. I'd been semi-retired for a little over three years by then, retired ever since the Continental Wrestling Alliance had passed on extending my contract to a nineteenth year. At first I stayed home, kicked back and watched All My Children and The Price is Right. I was finished with the business, The Life. But wrestlers don't get pensions and bills pile up, so I found a job bagging groceries and wrangling shopping carts at Dominick's. It was me and a bunch of other broken down old men asking "Paper or plastic?" and pushing carts in the snow. The only difference between me and them was that those broken down old men were in their seventies. I wasn't quite fifty yet.
I stuck with that job for awhile, but the itch came back. The road, the ring, The Life--it throws you in a headlock tighter than any drug, any woman ever could. So I put in some calls and got myself booked for a few independent shows. It wasn't the big leagues, it wasn't the CWA, but I was wrestling again. I've always been a worker in that ring--making other guys look good, keeping them safe, helping them tell the fans a decent story--so I took my twenty-five years' experience and did the best I could to smarten up a bunch of kids who were green as street signs.
John "Friar" Tuck was an old WWII frogman who'd been operating the same territory out of Wisconsin ever since he returned from the Pacific in '46. The promotion's always been fringe, probably because of a lack of talent and the isolated location. Tomah's a real shithole an hour north of the Dells. Because he was out of the way and such a small operation Friar never did get bought out by the Continental Wrestling Alliance or Global Wrestling Federation when those companies started gobbling up territories in the 1980's. Friar Tuck's Wrestling Road Show--that's the outfit's name--was touring mostly in Minnesota and Wisconsin, sometimes the Dakotas back when I broke in with them. Today they'll do shows in Tomah and Lacrosse, maybe Eau Claire, once in a while the Northwoods. They've always loved Friar Tuck's up in the Woods.
I was twenty-three when I first worked for Friar--fresh out of training at Art Stigma's wrestling school, The House of Pain. I was bouncing around the Rust Belt at the time, working shows here and there, but nothing steady. That's when my cousin, Fredrink, mailed me Friar Tuck's promotional flyer. Fredrink was taking his family on vacation to the Dells and made a wrong turn on the way to Tommy Bartlett's Water Show. They stopped for directions in Tomah when he saw it: FRIAR TUCK'S WRESTLING ROAD SHOW RUNNING WEEKLY. THIS WEEK'S MAIN EVENT: WORLD'S ONLY TWENTY MIDGET, ALL 100% PURE-BLOOD CHIPPEWA INDIAN BATTLE ROYAL. ALL MIDGET. ALL REDSKIN. ALL THE TIME. &!!! OPEN CALL TO CHALLENGE "THE KING OF THE NORTHWOODS," EMPEROR JONES #2, FOR CHAMPIONSHIP & CASH!
I arrived at The Road Show with my bag in one hand, the flyer in the other. I told Friar, in all my twenty-three-year-old cockiness, that I was there to win Emperor Jones's title. Friar spit out a peach pit he'd been sucking on and nodded his head. "Put on your gear and come with me," he said. "The bear's around back."
Here's the thing about Friar Tuck and his Wrestling Road Show: instead of relying on talent, Friar put all his energies into gimmicks and sneaky angles. His matches were more of a circus act than wrestling. He'd strap midgets in harnesses, wench them up from the rafters, and make them battle each other in mid air. He'd challenge any marks in the crowd to try and pin the Road Show's resident strongman, Ole Gunderson. If they could pin Ole, Friar would pay them five hundred dollars. That never happened. On the rare occasion when a challenger looked like he might overtake Ole, Friar, acting as the Road Show's ref, would give the guy a taste of the cattle prod he kept hidden up his shirt sleeve.
But what Friar loved most, what was the bread and butter of his shows, were the animals. When the Road Show was operating outside the jurisdiction of municipalities or cities, and sometimes even when it wasn't, Friar would throw all kinds of animals in the ring with each other: gamecocks would duke it out with two alley cats or a badger and a particularly vicious Rottweiler would go at it. And, as it was stated in the flyer, there was a standing challenge for wrestlers to take on Emperor Jones Number Two, who I'd been told had a three year undefeated streak.
"When you lock up just watch your neck, and I wouldn't use no leverage moves or submission holds on his left forepaw. He don't like that too much." This was the advice, the only training Friar Tuck gave me before our first match, a match which I lost to the Emperor. We locked up, grappled. I reversed a few of his holds, threw an awkward headlock around his massive neck. I was swatted and batted and finally pinned. There was no blood, no mauling--he would have torn me apart if his claws hadn't been removed--but my body was pummeled. My insides were applesauce. I lost three more matches with him that weekend, but returned the next weekend, and each weekend after that for ten months. Most challengers would wrestle the Emperor once and move on. Some tried their hands at rematches, thinking they'd figured the bear out. They never did. Emperor would dispatch them with one swat and yawn and that was it. I didn't keep coming back because the pay was great; I earned less than I could make working around Chicago or Milwaukee. I kept going back because I wanted to pin that bear and hoist the Interspecies Title over my head in victory. Week after week we'd wrestle. One show Friday night, a show on Saturday night. Twice on Sundays. I never could beat him, but I'd come close. Near stalemates. I was strong back then. Six and a half feet tall and three-hundred-pounds of nothing but muscle. I could suplex guys two at a time and deadlift compact cars. And I needed every bit of that strength to hold my own with the Emperor. After wrestling him a hundred and twenty-seven times I probably knew that bear better than anyone. I can still taste those hot breaths he'd snort out at me when I'd work him to the mat, spraying me with bearsnot and looking up at me with those almost human eyes.
Match one-twenty-eight was my last with the Emperor. I had him. If he were a man he would have submitted to me, but bears can't speak up and say "I give!" All they can do is roar and go crazy and sink those teeth two inches into your thigh. That was the only time Emperor ever seriously injured me. But I don't blame him. I'd been able to get a modified chicken wing locked in on his left front leg, the one Friar had told me not mess to with. When he was a cub Emperor had stepped into a bear trap. The scar from the jaws of the trap had long since faded, but the memory of that pain was still with him. I was so close to beating him. I knew with one good submission hold he'd lose his will to fight and then I'd have him. Have my championship. I clamped down on the only leg that I could get to and Emperor went crazy and took a chunk out of my thigh.
"When you think of your name, just think of something that makes you happy." That's what I tell the young guys I see in these backwater promotions nowadays. I tell them to think real hard about their ring names before settling on one. And once they do find that name they like, the one that makes them feel like a superstar, to stick with it no matter who tells them otherwise. I tried telling that to a few rookies when I was with the CWA, but it was no use. Once a kid makes it to the show--when he signs on with Global Wrestling Federation or the Continental Wrestling Alliance--it's too late. Once they make it that far up the ladder they think they've got everything figured out. I know I did. But now that I'm back in the territories I get a chance to give advice to guys who want to hear it. They listen. And why wouldn't they? For eighteen years I was the CWA's Warthog, for cryin' out loud.
David Carlo Ferrari, that was the name I was born with. Coming up, I worked as "Racin" Dave Ferrari. That's what I called myself when I wrestled all my matches with Emperor Jones. Man, I was going places with that name, main-eventing a lot of small shows, winning tournaments; I even did a commercial for a used car dealer in Joliet. "Racin" Dave Ferrari was the name I was using when the CWA's president, Smilin Joe Spiceland, saw me work a match way the hell up in Rhinelander. Turns out Joe had family who lived there and decided to stop on his way to the Twin Cities for a business meeting. Smilin offered me a CWA contract on the spot and I was sure it was because of my name; I hadn't even wrestled that great of a program. I worked slow and dragged around and old ham-n-egger for thirty minutes without any high spots. Hell, it was ten minutes into the match before we even touched each other. He didn't have any official contracts on him, so Smilin drew the terms up on the back of a program for that night's show and signed me right after the match; I was still in my boots and trunks, dripping sweat all over him, all over the contract, on the X where I had to sign my name. I drove down to CWA's headquarters in Chicago two days later to make things official.
Smilin sat me down across from him at that huge mahogany desk of his, the same one you always see him sitting at during TV interviews. "Dave," he tells me, "I like your style. You're a good worker. Someone who I think could contribute a lot to Continental. Someone Smilin Joe Spiceland would like to do business with." Smilin's flashing that horse tooth grin of his at me the whole time. "There's just one thing, Dave. I'm gonna have to change that name of yours. CWA's overloaded with car guys right now. I've got The Edsel, Craig and Ken Camaro, and there's Mustang Sally and Mario Andretti Petty. Last thing I need is another one of you people.
"See, Dave, I'm in the need for a good solid animal. A monster. A manster. A regular man-eater-upper." Smilin bugged-out his eyes and leaned over his desk, snarling and snorting and spraying me with spit. Smilin pointed both hands to an imaginary marquee. "The phacochoerus aethiopicus. The Warthog! That's what I need, Davey. The Warthog. Come on, you give it a try. Real ferocious. Let me see you, Dave. Be the Warthog, Dave." A year earlier I'd been wrestling a real animal, the Emperor, in front of twenty people when he decided to gnaw on my leg. If the bite had been two inches higher or a half inch deeper, I'd never have wrestled again. I looked Smilin Joe Spiceland square in the eye and let loose what was to be the first ever Warthog War Cry.
"Perfect. So, it's settled then." Smilin Joe extended his hand to me and I shook it and "Racin" Dave Ferrari sped off into oblivion.
The Wrestling Road Show office and Emperor Jones's lodging were all crammed into a rusted-out, corrugated garage on Friar's property five miles outside of Tomah. I made it four paces onto Friar's land when a mangy St. Bernard bolted out of the garage growling, headed right for me. I cocked a fist, ready to fight the dog off, when a shotgun blast crackled through the crisp, pine-scented air. The St. Bernard immediately heeled and Friar Tuck shouted, "Flatlander!" Friar called anyone from Illinois "Flatlanders."
"What's with the saber tooth here?" I asked.
"That's Duke Thompson Number One. Keeps the Emperors company. I'm using him to socialize Number Three. Three and the Duke like to go at it a bit. Those two really have some wars. Reminds me of Number Two and you, Racin." Friar leaned his shotgun against my car slapped my shoulders. "Racin Dave. Shit. It's been a while, brother. How the hell you been?"
"You know, keeping both shoulders off the mat. How's the Emperor?"
Nelson Algren Award finalist
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